How to Photograph a Sunrise

How to Photograph a Sunrise



The alarm clock buzzes. You crack an eye open and see the light blinking at you. 4:45am. After a few moments, your groggy mind remembers why you set your alarm in the first place. You groan, and after another minute, roll out of bed.

You take a quick peek out the window. Still dark out. But it won’t be for long. You quickly dress in multiple layers, pulling out a pair of fingerless gloves and beanie cap. You pack a breakfast bar and thermos full of coffee. Then you double-check your equipment list:

  1. Camera [no brainer]. Check.
  2. 24-70 lens [favorite for this activity]. Check.
  3. Tripod and quick release [a necessity]. Check.
  4. Shutter release [makes for clear pictures]. Check.
  5. Cleared cards [to take as many as you can]. Check.

By 5:00am, you are on your way out the door and headed out your driveway.

You know exactly where you are headed; peak about 20 minutes from your home. After unpacking your equipment, you face the Eastern horizon. Already the golden glow of the sun is beginning to appear. The fog is swirling around the base of the rolling green hills. You smile. It’s going to be a beautiful sunrise.

You place your camera on the tripod. Pause to confirm your settings:

Shutter Speed (TV) = 20 seconds

The early morning light is soft and diffused, so you need a longer shutter speed to let in more light, otherwise your picture will be underexposed.

ISO = 100

With a long shutter speed, you don’t need your sensor to be more sensitive to the light. And with a low ISO, you have a higher dynamic range for stronger intensity of color.

White balance = Shade

Morning light is cooler in color tones. You know that you can correct this with your white balance, so you shoot on shade so the sunrise feels golden and warm.

File type = RAW

You want to go home and post-process your image to produce something really sweet. Shooting in RAW extends your editing capabilities. And since your file size is larger, you now have the ability to order a 20×24 print for your grandparents’ 50th anniversary present.

You start shooting into the sunrise, pressing the shutter every 30 seconds or so after evaluating your image. The colors begin to intensify. You like what you are getting, but soon, the sun has crested the hill on the horizon, and you stop. There\ has got to be something cooler to shoot.

You turn and look to the left, your breath catching in your throat. The sun is lighting the surrounding hills perfectly, and the fog is illuminated by the intense highlights. Quickly, you adjust your shutter speed and fire off a few shots. In just a few moments, you stare at your LCD screen. A smile spreads across your face. Got it.

Satisfied with the results of your sunrise shoot, you head back home. After a mid morning nap, you take the time to upload your pictures. Just as you hoped, that last shot fulfills all your expectations.

One week later, a package arrives at your door. Carefully, you open the wrapping. In your hands, you hold the product of your previous early morning adventure.

Loss of sleep. An early morning in the cold. A 40-minute drive.

Worth it?

Totally. Your grandparents are gonna love it.

Further Reading: How to Photograph Sunrises and Sunsets

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Christina N Dickson is a visionary artist and philanthropist in Portland Oregon. Her work includes wedding photography and leadership with

Some Older Comments

  • Rommel Miraflores April 27, 2013 12:38 am

    Great article! How about a complimenting one, like "How to Photograph 'a Sunset"?

  • Ken Toney April 26, 2013 03:27 pm

    This is exactly what I do almost every Sunday. I live about 45min from the Blue Ridge Parkway. No pain no gain!

  • ony May 2, 2012 12:33 pm

    Nice. The only thing missing is the aperture setting... I was looking for it...

  • Rahul Aijaz December 18, 2011 01:21 pm

    Along with a great tutorial for photographing sunrise, you have got some brilliant writing skills, Christina! :D
    You tell a story instead of just describe everything and that makes it more effective! Thanks for this great tutorial, by the way! :)

  • Sandralynn October 22, 2011 07:41 am

    Great article. I hope I can get a sunrise shot soon! I've gotten up the last two weekends and both times as soon as I get to town I discover there will not be one due to the nasty gray skies here in Oregon. I will prevail though!

  • Sammy 4am Photography April 26, 2011 11:09 am

    The hardest part is getting out of that warm bed for sure. Personally i find i'm freshest after about 30 minutes of getting up and can think the clearest at that time in the morning. Thanks for well written post. For those that have not done this you must try it.. sunrises are very nice to photograph.

  • JesseAdams April 23, 2011 03:42 am

    Great article, I am going to actually make the effort and try to capture a sunset with these techniques some day soon!

    Here is a shot I took arriving in New York by ship at around 4:40am. The colours of the sun breaking through the clouds around the skyline of Manhattan were breathtaking!

  • Mark April 22, 2011 01:33 am

    So many times I have gotten the "just before the sun clears the horizon" shot and then turned around to see the colors on the landscape behind me, that now I often position myself for the "sunrise photo WITHOUT the sun in it" by scouting the shot where the sun will be at my back. I look out across the landscape and wait for the morning colors to arrive. This can lead to even more beauty than the "sunrise-silhouette" photo that seems to be the "cliche" these days. I still shoot silhouettes on occasion, but only for a specific reason.

    Am I confused? I thought that polarizer filters worked best at ninety degrees to the light source, so how can this help when you are aiming into the sun???

  • javier April 21, 2011 09:24 am

    @Alejandro: The main reason for ISO 100 is not the noise, but the higher dynamic range. There are more available colors at ISO 100 than at ISO 400. Normally the camera optimum is around ISO 120-140 but this depends on the sensor, so your preferred setting might be either ISO 100 or ISO 200.

    @terry: Use a polarizer filter, it should take care of most the reflections.

    @digga: Yes, white balance doesn't really matter for the post processing as it can be adjusted latter, but it will effect how the preview looks like in the back of your camera, so if you want to adjust your settings on the spot based on the feedback you better set it up to something that resembles the look you are after.

    Chirstine, I really loved this post, sunsets are cool but sunrises have something special :-D
    It has been a while since my last sunrise pic (maybe I should take this as a hint) but my technique (back in the film days) was a bit different, I would go for aperture priority rather than shutter to ensure a nice depth of field, and instead of getting up at 4 I was more likely to go out trekking in the evening and sleep out near to the spot. But I was as much into the trekking as into the picture taking, so many days I would just forget to take the photos. Thanks for bringing the memories back :-)

  • bryan April 21, 2011 01:29 am

    you dont need a shutter release. you can use the self timer instead

  • Jason St. Petersburg Photographer April 20, 2011 11:53 pm

    I really respect photographers that regularly get up and make the effort to photograph the sunrise, and really the hour or so before sunrise that is even better.

    The formatting of this post is nice and clear, although I do not much care for vignetting photos as done in the example.

    I, myself, rarely photograph the sunrise, but had occasion to do so a little while back because I do like to photograph haikyo (abandoned buildings):

  • Linus April 20, 2011 10:28 pm

    A very beautifully written and motivating article. I liked the style of writing. Here is a sample from my side. I had no tripod so I tried and managed it with the window sill of my room.

  • Imogen Woods April 20, 2011 09:42 pm

    Beautifully written, has inspired me to get up early tomorrow morning.

  • Jed Delmiguez April 20, 2011 08:40 pm

    That's how you do it. Great article!

    And while you're at it please visit my sunset shots too!

  • Erik Kerstenbeck April 20, 2011 04:00 pm


    So, why not create a Sunrise at Home?

    Breakfast on the Coast:

    Cheers, Erik

  • ScottC April 20, 2011 01:12 pm

    That makes it sound just a bit easier than it is!

    Sleep in an try a sunset:

  • Sparda April 20, 2011 12:43 pm

    I love taking sunrise photos. Here's one of mine, a panorama:-

  • neshobayoga April 20, 2011 11:18 am

    Thanks so much for this narrative, I am inspired!

  • wri7913 April 20, 2011 10:56 am

    For those with Apple iPhone's there is a cool app called "Sunrise" It's a solar calculator that tells you when the sun rises and sets, moon phases and many other tips cool info. It's a handy app especially if you are going for the sunset shoots too. You simply make sure you are at the area 20 - 30 minutes before sunset to get the shots you want. I'm sure there are other apps for the iPhone and droid phones as well.

  • Danny April 20, 2011 09:56 am

    Why go through that if you are just going to turn it into something else when you get home? Just go there anytime, take a crappy shot and then go home and make it what you want it to be...

    There are two forms of art that you have mentioned here... photography, and post production work.. The post production is an art unto itself but it is not photography. And when taking a photograph already knowing that you are going to manipulate and adjust it later, it cheapens the art of photography.

  • Erik Kerstenbeck April 20, 2011 09:24 am


    I would like to add that you can also get some good sunrise pictures if you use a exposure bracketing and then apply a bit of HDR treatment using Photomatix, HDR Efex or some other SW in post. This shot was taken from the railing of a Ferry before setting sail first thing as the sun was coming up. I paid special attention to where the sun was wrt to the clouds so as not to get blown highlights. No tripod but stabilized against a bulk head.

    Morning Sky, Wellington, New Zealand:

  • Houry April 20, 2011 08:55 am

    Thank you for DPS for great articles. Great post and comments.

  • Martin Soler HDR Photography April 20, 2011 08:29 am

    That was fun reading and instructive too. I've done some sunrises but I guess I'm just a lazy guy 'cos I mainly do sunsets. I think HDR lends itself well to sunrise and sunset photos as you'll get to capture all the light.
    Here are some of my sunset photos:

  • Richard April 20, 2011 08:22 am

    Curious to where you got this photo Christina??????

  • Beck April 20, 2011 07:55 am

    Thanks for your tips. You've got a really good narrative style happening and loved that you gave out preferred camera settings to capture a great shot.

  • Luke Peterson January 12, 2011 03:21 am

    Great article. A couple more tips for beginners:

    1. You'll get the best light for your sunrise photos BEFORE the sun appears above the horizon. Give yourself an extra 30-45 minutes shooting time before the actual sunrise. (You did check to see the exact time didn't you?)
    2. Do as much preparation as you can the night before. Eg, clean your lens and polariser if you're using one.
    3. Find inspiration close-by by scouting areas close to your home. You can use the mapping feature on Flickr to find photos others have taken in your nearby surroundings.

  • Shuford March 22, 2010 09:29 pm

    nice post, nice blog! :)

  • Christopher Abnett March 2, 2010 04:20 am

    Hey Leight. That is Te Mata Peak on top. Funny enough I was just there this weekend pass Photographing for HDR and Paragliders. Gonna Try a Sunrise from here soon.

  • Juan Carlos December 31, 2009 06:58 pm

    Nice article. Can I suggest somthing else? I usually use a polarizing filter and it works in this situations.

  • terry swinton September 20, 2009 10:33 am

    I,m getting the reflection of the sun in my early morning sunrise shots ,how do i stop this?

  • DiGgA August 18, 2009 01:44 am

    I thought the white balance didn't matter in RAW? :S

  • Thom Graff February 17, 2009 11:02 pm

    Well, here I was, minding my own business and reading the digital-photography-school website, but your article on photographing sunrises has motivated me to drive 45-60 minutes to Crown Point (near Troutdale, Oregon on the Columbia river.) I've packed my camera and accessories, (along with some snacks and my mp3 player of course) and I am up far too early. According to Yahoo the sun's coming up at 7:09, so I am headed out the door. Thanks for the loss of sleep, but also for the photos which are sure to result from this venture. I appreciate the article. :)

    Sincerely, Thom Graff

  • Monte Stevens February 17, 2009 12:16 am

    I loved how you presented this neat little lesson in story form. I can relate to all of it. Well done!

  • Leight February 14, 2009 11:38 am

    TE MATA PEAK? I'm pretty sure thats a photo of Te Mata Peak in Havelock North, Hawkes Bay?

    Who's photo is this?

  • Ashleigh February 13, 2009 02:21 am

    Excellent post.

    I want to go shoot one RIGHT now.


  • Carl February 8, 2009 05:19 pm

    Another note about RAW. Your white balance setting doesn't really matter in RAW, you can select the temperature (white balance) in your conversion software (I use Lightroom) later. RAW format saves the original camera data before the white balance is factored in.

  • Eric February 8, 2009 03:28 pm

    Nice article.. But different sunrises have distinguished shooting solutions...

  • Alejandro Z. February 8, 2009 04:30 am

    +1 to mike vd. RAW is pointless if your intention is to print larger. It has benefits, but not that one, as printing doesn't depend on file size. In any case, 99% of folks celebrating 50th anniversaries can't tell a 100 PPI image from a 300 PPI one, so any modern camera can make a wall-size image without much compromise.

    Also, why ISO 100? Most DSLRs show no visible noise until ISO 800. Anything up to ISO 400 should be ok.

  • Claress February 7, 2009 07:30 pm

    Oh my god! That's EXACTLY what I did this morning!!!! To the letter!

    I had a shot in mind and went to the location before the sun came up. The light was great and I got the sunrise shot I was after, but then I also got a shot of the light from the sun itself on the landscape and I'm really happy with it!! Only trouble was that there was a strong wind and no matter what I did, the camera bore the brunt of it, so the shots aren't the sharpest they could be :(

    Oh well, there's always next time!

  • MeiTeng February 7, 2009 12:40 pm

    Thanks for sharing this! I have been wanting to photograph a great sunrise but yet to.....:)

  • Christina N Dickson February 7, 2009 11:34 am

    Thanks Kim for the concern! You were absolutely right! I was in New Zealand this last November and had a marvelous time!

  • Tom B. February 7, 2009 03:56 am


    A couple of words of advice about the sunrise at Haleakala volcano.

    First and most important, lots of of warm clothing. It is freezing up there in the morning. There is a shelter, but it is crowded with people that wore shorts to the top of the mountain.

    Second, allow yourself time in your trip for 2 or 3 attempts. It can easily be too cloudy to see the sunrise until the sun is up. But the drive down is still full of fantastic views.

    Finally, find a book called Maui Revealed and do everything in it you have time and inclination for. They have some especially nice tips for waterfalls on the drive to Hana.

  • Deirdre February 7, 2009 01:22 am

    Beautifully written. Simple and inspiring. Thank you!

  • H February 6, 2009 08:35 pm

    awesome writeup. really enjoyed reading it.

  • tokaare February 6, 2009 06:36 pm

    Wow, what an inspirational story. I got goosebumps, all DPS articles should be like that :)

  • Alexandru February 6, 2009 05:58 pm

    Not trying to sound pedantic or sarcastic, but wouldn't any grandparents prefer a photo of their children and grandchildren as 50th anniversary gift, instead of a RAW-20-seconds-vignette-stricken-sunrise picture? :)

    But since this is an article about sunrise, I have some questions:
    - why the vignette in the picture?
    - why 20 seconds exposure?

  • Daily Jump Start Guy February 6, 2009 04:38 pm

    What a great way to start the day, nicely written, especially the part about "there has got to be something cooler to shoot", so many times our best work has been sitting right beside us waiting to be noticed. Well done.

  • Praveen February 6, 2009 02:41 pm

    Nice narrative and nice pic, will follow ur instructions sometime in future and let you know the results.

    Check one of sunrise panorama pics i had taken sometime back

  • Mike VD February 6, 2009 02:28 pm

    The file size of a RAW photo has nothing to do with the size you can print in. The resolution (and sharpness of the photo in general, depending on the effect you want) is the only determining factor. RAW lets you manipulate it much more, but a JPEG will give you the same resolution and printing power of a RAW, but it will start to degrade if you do much editing to it (ie if you have to push the exposure a lot)

  • achee February 6, 2009 02:13 pm

    Thanks for sharing this experience. This article is beautifully written and it read like poetry. I didn't think of spending early morning for picture (cos I am too lazy) but you have changed my mind!

    And the picture is lovely too.

  • Kim February 6, 2009 02:01 pm


    Great photo - but where is the credit to the photographer? If it's your own, I apologise, but seeing as you're in Portland, Oregon, USA, and this is a photo of Te Mata Peak, Hawkes Bay, New Zealand (10 minutes drive from where I live), my initial assumption is that it's not yours. Given that this is a photography blog, giving kudos to the photographer seems only right.

    Apologies again if it's your own, and if it is I'm in awe - it's a fantastic photo, and many of us locals have been trying to get such a good one for ages :)

  • ROB February 6, 2009 01:39 pm

    Nothing like planning a shoot like that and getting there with perfect conditions. Nice image, the fog swirl really sets it apart. Nice that your grandparents are enthusiastic about it too.

  • approximate February 6, 2009 01:28 pm

    How much depth of field did this particular photo yield? (in terms of f-stop)

  • Julieanne February 6, 2009 12:36 pm

    Sounds great and I like the little 'story'.

  • M.C.Liu February 6, 2009 11:52 am

    Very well written.. Love the narration and representation of fact....A unique style of writing.. wished if all the basic photography books be written like this


  • Martin February 6, 2009 08:51 am

    You mention the use of shutter priority. However, I disagree, and I prefer to use aperture priority.
    I normally want to control the aperture, to ensure it's not too large (resulting in a very small depth of field), or too small, but I prefer to ensure it's near the lens' optimum range typically f/8-f/11 for most lenses.

  • Richard February 6, 2009 07:50 am

    Great article,

    May I suggest one other important item to the list?

    6. Make sure battery is charged - and so is the spare battery...

    I only mention this as it happened to a friend of mine once (cough cough), when he went on morning shooting session with his camera club!


  • Vic Morphy February 6, 2009 06:20 am

    Christina, this is a fabulous little article. Clearly written, easy to understand and with a lovely familiar tone. I have taken a note of your name and will definitely read any more of your articles I come across in the future! Thanks, Vic

  • Yossi I. February 6, 2009 04:57 am

    It's a long time I'm on this site and this is the first time i wish to add my comments.
    I love your wording, it's really wonderful article :-).

  • Tom February 6, 2009 04:19 am

    Interesting article although a few things I would add as tips to this article which may be obvious but sometimes often overlooked.
    1. Do some homework & take notes. Always wise to check out well renowned photographers who have mastered some awesome images and study them and get to know their styles. Learn from the best and you too will become one. Although some may not give you the time of day some offer awesome advise you could never read in any book. I often visit galleries talking with people & photographers learning valuable information. I don't think you could ever know too much especially when it comes to photography.
    2.) This sounds silly but always makes sure your battery is fully charged & lens/sensor are clean. Don't know how many shots I've missed because of camera issues so I usually carry a spare.
    3. I often tend to scout out places & different points of views prior as I like to get different POV when shooting anything. You would be amazed some of the shots I took with a backup camera tromping through the woods and lakes at different POV which makes it more interesting. I found stepping & tripping over rocks/branches & muck pothole at 5 am is no fun.
    4. If your camera has a Landscape mode why not try using it? The trick is to experiment & know your camera limitations. I use several lens and cameras but my Focal length varies from 7.4 mm up to 200. mm depending on what I am trying to capture. Most people use a quality L lens between (24-105. mm)
    5. Be flexible & think outside the box. I don't like my shots to be like everyone else's (unless you are trying to recreate something) so I often try framing my shots creatively through leafs, tree branches or other objects some act as a silhouette. Try to be creative.
    6. Because I like details & warm lighting I normally shoot in the lowest ISO my cameras can allow me to shoot (mine is usually 50 or 80). Also depending on the light as it does varies so does your time & shutter speeds. Try to stay within f/4.0.
    7. Depending on my location and conditions I sometimes use density filters for some interesting effects. Most important have fun and don't be afraid to experiment & learn from your mistakes.

  • ncage February 6, 2009 04:02 am

    I'm a newbie here guys but why is the 20 second exposure required? I don't understand why the light meter wouldn't work with a lower f/stop. Of course you want to high f/stop for depth of field but say a f/22 isn't going to take 20 seconds (i wouldn't think). Why couldn't you just put your camera in aperature priority and then set your apperature for something like f/22? The light meter working with the camera should be able to set the shuttery appropriately i would think without any exposure compensation adjustments. Am i wrong?

  • Kris February 6, 2009 04:01 am

    Great article, and the timing for me was perfect. We're leaving for Maui in 2 weeks and the first thing we're doing is driving up to the Haleakala volcano, 10,000 ft above sea level, to see the sunrise. Luckily, I have all the gear you mentioned, but wasn't sure about the exposure settings. Thanks for sharing that!!!!

    Oh, and the drive up the volcano from where we're staying is about 3 hours, so that means getting up waaaay early. Good thing the jet lag will help with that.

    Thanks again.

  • PowerPix February 6, 2009 02:55 am

    Sunsets are also fun and interesting but you just cannot get the same effect as a good sunrise. Plus, you get a feeling of accomplishment when you get up early that lasts throughout the day.

  • Peter February 6, 2009 02:53 am

    Thanks for the tip! Fantastic article - I like the tip on the white balance. Thanks!

  • Akshay February 6, 2009 02:34 am

    Saturday comes and narration is very close to convincing me that I should really wake up that early in the morning. It's really worth it. Thanks :)

  • LisaNewton February 6, 2009 02:27 am

    Photographing a sunrise is definitely on my to-do photo list. I have to get all the stuff required (tripod mostly), but then I'm ready. Living so close to the beach, I should be able to get some great shots.

    Thanks for the step by step instructions.

  • Ilan February 6, 2009 02:04 am

    Wonderful and well written :)
    But why only 24-70mm? Why not something wider?

    Plus, it's always good to be inspired by photos of the masters before going out to shot. Why not get some ideas from those who left a mark?

  • Emil February 6, 2009 02:00 am

    Nice story :P
    Nice photo, also

  • Helmut Watterott February 6, 2009 01:54 am

    I suppose what is missing here is setting a very small aperture to get as much dof as possible, hence the long shutter speed.

  • Rick February 6, 2009 01:10 am

    Nice narrative! When I'm driving out here in the wide open spaces along the Columbia River, I'm often subconsciously looking for places that would make a great sunrise/sunset shot. Now, I just need to get out and do it.

  • Victor Augusteo February 6, 2009 12:58 am

    i guess the hardest part of sunrise photography is waking up early. especially for people like me who sleep really late (1-2 am). the next problem is getting good sun and cloud formation, because we cannot predict the nature at all. Most of landscape shot are trial and error anyway.

    nice article. definitely should try the tips :)

  • Scott February 6, 2009 12:56 am

    Very nicely done. You've captured the joy and magic of a sunrise shoot.

    I would suggest to your readers that they can experience the same joy in urban areas as well. In fact, I have meet many interesting people shooting at 4:00 or 5:00 in the morning!

  • Martin February 6, 2009 12:47 am

    Nicely written!

    While it may be hard to get out of bed early in the morning to catch the sunrise, it's one of my favourite times of the day for photography, due to the lighting and colours.
    Getting together with some fellow photographers for an early morning sunrise can be a lot of fun too.

    Every now and then, I'll go shooting early in the morning with some colleagues who are also into photography. After the sunrise, we'll normally find a hot breakfast at a nearby deli / cornerstore, and then head off to work.